In the opening minutes of “I am My Own Wife,” currently playing at Salt Lake Acting Company, the primary persona, Charlotte, says, “Some people, they come to see me. Ich bin Transvestit. But soon, they look at the furniture.” Exactly. A one-man show about a German transvestite living through two of the most oppressive regimes in the 20th century sounds intriguing, but the story that unfolds is even richer and more relevant than the substantial premise suggests.
The Tony award-winning play is a meta-drama, and author Doug Wright places himself in the middle of the action. He meets and interviews Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, a 65-year-old transvestite and homosexual born Lothar Berfelde. He finds Charlotte running a museum of late-19th-century furniture out of her home in what has been, until recently in the show’s chronology, East Berlin. He quickly becomes enraptured in her tales of growing and living as a sexually confused man in first Nazi and then Communist Germany. Encounters with both SS and Stasi agents are abundant and chilling. Far more than just a story of war and intrigue with a unique protagonist, the show is best when it explores the nuances of truth, gender, community, tolerance and friendship.
A one-person show lives or dies with the one person in question. The performances conjured by David Spencer in his portrayal of Charlotte, Wright and all of their intermediaries and topics of conversation are spectacular. Spencer shifts fluidly between 39 different characters, with at least one scene consisting of an overlapping conversation between three.
His accents, gestures and bearing click with the precision of one of Charlotte’s cherished clocks, never once leaving the audience confused. When a new character is introduced, Spencer makes it very clear with whom you are dealing by his stance and a simple look.
Both the audience and Spencer are fortunate to be in the presence of excellent material as well. The show was gleaned, processed and polished over nearly 10 years from taped interviews between the real Wright and Von Mahlsdorf that were conducted shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. Wright also had the contents of Von Mahlsdorf’s file, kept by the East German secret police. The implications of the file drives the central conflict of the show. The result is an overwhelming sense of authenticity, down to the use of actual recordings and photographs. The authenticity extends to the inclusion of the author’s own doubts concerning his subject's credibility.
The show's setting also helps its presentation. SLAC chose to use its secondary theater mainly because of scheduling reasons, but the smaller space (only room for 90 with no reserved seats, so get there early) adds to the intimacy of Spencer’s performance. With no seat more than 30 feet from the stage, the details of character necessary to pull off the portrayal of so many personalities are allowed to remain small.